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visualisation of the Bohr model of an atom. At the centre is the tightly packed nucleus, composed of protons and neutrons.

Atomic nuclei (artist’s impression) contain both protons and neutrons. A newly reported isotope offers the hope of testing fundamental principles of nuclear structure. Credit: Mark Garlick/SPL

Atomic and molecular physics

A peculiar atom shakes up assumptions of nuclear structure

Lopsided potassium isotope survives longer than predicted by theory.

Physicists have found an exotic variant of potassium that is much longer-lived than predicted — hinting at the existence of other more-extreme atoms that stretch the known limits of nuclear structure.

Isotopes are alternative forms of a single chemical element, each with the same number of protons but differing numbers of neutrons. If an isotope has too few neutrons, the nucleus can no longer hold itself together. Such an isotope is said to be ‘beyond the proton dripline’.

Daria Kostyleva at the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany, and her colleagues formed a beam of argon atoms. The atoms exchanged protons and neutrons, creating potassium-31, which has 12 neutrons and 19 protons. It is four neutrons beyond the dripline — meaning that it is four neutrons short of being stable.

The team’s analysis showed that the half-life of potassium-31 is about five trillionths of a second, much longer than predicted for an isotope so far beyond the dripline. It might be possible to detect atoms that are as many as seven neutrons beyond the dripline, which could help researchers to test fundamental predictions of quantum physics, the authors write.

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Plastic and other debris floats underwater in blue water

Plastic detritus from snacks and meals floats in the Red Sea. Marine sampling shows that food waste accounts for nearly 90% of plastic pollution at some locales. Credit: Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media/Getty

Ocean sciences

Humanity’s fast-food habit is filling the ocean with plastic

Food bags, drink bottles and similar items account for the biggest share of plastic waste near the shore.
Conceptual artwork of a pair of entangled quantum particles.

An artist’s impression of ‘entangled’ particles, which share properties even at a distance. Entangled photons can be used to help secure a multi-party video meeting. Credit: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library

Quantum information

Quantum keys dial up tamper-proof conference calls

A new experiment efficiently distributes the highly secure keys to four parties instead of the typical two.
Farmers harvest pineapples in a field.

Workers harvest pineapples in Lingao County, China. Less than one-third of the money spent on food eaten at home reaches farmers. Credit: Yuan Chen/VCG/Getty


Poor harvest: farmers earn a pitiful fraction of the money spent on food

The bulk of consumer food spending around the world ends up in the coffers of distributors, processors and other parties beyond the farm gate.
A woman wearing a protective face mask splashes her hands in a jet of water

A pedestrian seeks relief from searing temperatures in Spain, where a high proportion of heat-related deaths have been linked to climate change. Credit: SALAS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Climate change

More than one-third of heat deaths blamed on climate change

Warming resulting from human activities accounts for a high percentage of heat-related deaths, especially in southern Asia and South America.
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